Listen, before you go out there, it’s important to understand some things. You know how we see ourselves, but you don’t understand how we’re seen. I don’t want to make light of all you’ve accomplished here in the academy, but no matter what you’ve done, well… listen, let me tell you a story, and more importantly, let me tell you how the story was told.
Tiil’ik settled down, folding its wings down neatly under its carapace. If you saw Tiil’ik, you’d think of a very burly, rocky-skinned preying mantis. Six legs, long body, segmented eyes, wings and carapace, like I said, you’d think bug. Just remember Tiil’ik would look at you and think “meat sack”. It’s all perspective.
Anyway, Tiil’ik settled quietly to one side of Aaastoret, who for the purposes of our discussion we’ll call a big sentient Komodo dragon. Aaastoret would also look at you and think “meat sacks”, so don’t get cocky. The two of them are from pre-Ascendence cultures. They’ve been in space so long they don’t remember not being in space. These two, they’ve worked together before, they’ve flown freighters around, maybe even owned ships themselves once or twice, but they don’t think of things like that the same way we do, meat sacks. Listen to their words, try to see us from the outside.
Aaastoret opened one eye, and seeing Tiil’ik, clicked a switch with a claw. The little pool that Aaastoret was laying in turned from blue to red, lights around her letting anyone who was watching know that this cold blooded one was going to become more active. Tiil’ik saw this and held still, not waiting, but inactive. Waiting requires a heart beat that splits time up into little bits. Tiil’ik was just traveling the fourth dimension.
Then Aaastoret spoke. “I see you again, Tiil’ik,” she said, her voice like rocks in a tumbler. Tiil’ik understands the meaning, it means “I’m glad to see you again, friend” in Aaastoret’s particular idiom. “And you’re here too,” Tiil’ik said.
“Much time has passed with you,” Aaastoret commented.
“I was a nymph when we were both aboard the Giolet” Tiil’ik said. “Now I am in my penultimate form, and my full power. I am saving for a nesting place.”
And Aaastoret, who will not mate for another century or so, understood Tiil’ik’s meaning. Tiil’ik had maybe ten Solar years left, then it would choose a gender, mate, and die. But neither of them would express it that way.
“I wonder something,” Tiil’ik said. “I have the opportunity to join the crew of the Denali. I have never traveled with a Captain before. But I understand that you have, and I wonder, what are the Captains like?”
That’s us, by the way, meat sacks. Out there, in the stars, we get called “Captains” as often as we get called “Humans”. Wanna know why? Keep listening.
Aaastoret stirred a little, moving more warm water around her skin, raising her body temperature, quickening her thoughts. “Is this captain a he captain or a she captain?” Aaastoret asked.
“I…didn’t think to notice. Is it important?” Tiil’ik asked.
“Not terribly, but they seem to think it is, and it’s best to refer to them by their chosen pronouns. If it’s too much bother you can usually just avoid the pronoun and call them ‘Captain’,” Aaastoret said. “But let me tell you some things about them. First, they do not call their species ‘Captains'”
“But all of them are named that,” Tiil’ik said. Curious, but not confrontational.
“Not all, not all. ‘Captain’ is a title they invented. They call their species ‘Human’. To them ‘Captain’ means, effectively, ‘one who leads’.”
Tiil’ik fluttered its wings and was silent for a moment. “Perhaps I do not understand. What does it mean that a Captain ‘leads’?”
“To them, a leader is one who takes care of the others on their ship, who makes hard decisions, who stands between the ship and disaster…”
Tiil’ik’s wings fluttered again, this time noisily. “Do they think the crew is made up of children? Surely it is the responsibility of every being to ensure its own survival.”
“Just so,” Aaastoret said. “But these humans are pack creatures. Like the glimmer-spete that live in this place. They tend to pack-bond, meaning that they will risk their own survival for that of others, if they feel it is required.”
“You mean their own offspring, for I’ve heard they survive beyond Bearing,” Tiil’ik asked.
“Yes, but beyond that. They will offer their own energy and goods to extend the lives of any with whom they have pack-bonded, which they will call ‘friends’.”
“Like the Dalien clans? Each would give his life to protect the clan?”
“Yes, but without such a formal structure. There is a reason we bring Captains on our ships. They are not physically impressive; they weigh as much as you, perhaps. They are clever but temperamental. They are not particularly robust in high-radiation environments. But they are… I can’t think of a word in Common, though perhaps there is one. Their word is ‘Tenacious’. Consider: suppose you were stuck on a hostile planet, alone. You are deeply injured, and the last ship for at least six years has just left. You have no food, minimal supplies, and neither food nor supplies will last until help arrives. What would you do?”
“I would die,” Tiil’ik said, without thinking about it. “What else?”
“This happened to a Captain…a Human…when they were just leaving their home planet. Instead of dying, this human tended to their own wounds, discovered a way to grow food out of their own waste, and traveled halfway around the planet, while signaling to the others that they yet lived. And the others came back and retrieved the injured human.” Aaastoret said.
“But why? What reason would they have for expending energy and risking others to retrieve an individual?”
“I told you, they are pack animals. Each member of the pack is important. And when you are on a ship with a Captain, you are part of their pack.”
“But we do not share genetic identity.”
“Saving me can in no way ensure the human’s genetic future.”
“Even so.” Aaastoret shifted again. “Our people have found that for any twelve missions with a captain present, eleven are completed with all crew alive. Of those without, it falls to roughly eight in twelve.”
Ah, statistics. A language every sentient species speaks. Tiil’ik is suitably impressed. But Aaastoret continues.
“Consider: long ago, when the humans were embroiled in a war with another species, a human captain and one of their enemies crashed on a small remote world. This captain and their enemy found each other, but the enemy was injured. What would you have done in this situation?”
“I would have dispatched my enemy. But I sense a pattern in your examples.”
Aaastoret sighed, her species’ version of a laugh. “Even so. This human, who was in fact a captain, restored this enemy to health. They then brokered a peace not only between the two of them, but between the humans and their enemies. This human eventually gave their own life to cement that peace.”
“But this is incredible,” Tiil’ik said. “If the captains…the humans…are so beneficial, why is there still this…stigma, this wariness of traveling with them?”
Another sigh-laugh from Aaastoret. “They are not perfect, they are in fact quite odd. Have you chosen a final form? Will you be a he or a she of your species?”
“I haven’t decided, but I think perhaps I would like to be a she,” Tiil’ik said, partially out of politeness to Aaastoret. Choosing against her gender would seem rude to Tiil’ik, although Aaastoret would not have seen it that way.
“Do not say this to the human on your ship. Even if they try not to, the humans differentiate based on gender. They try hard to treat all beings as ‘equal’, meaning ‘as if they were also human’, but also ‘as if they were the same gender as this human’. They think themselves the pinnacle of biological development. It is perhaps the result of being the lone sentient species on their home world.”
“Ah, they are bigots,” Tiil’ik said.
“It would hurt them to hear you say that. A few of them are, of course. There are humans who truly believe themselves to be the best of all worlds. But most of them are….let us say myopic. They genuinely want to do what is best for everyone, but they have a hard time believing that what’s best for them isn’t best for everyone. Expect them to treat you as if you were another human, and understand that they mean it well.”
Tiil’ik stirred. Its species has been in space longer than we’ve been walking upright. The thought of being called an “equal” to one of us meat sacks rankled a bit. Or not, who am I to try to interpret its feelings?
“You have given me much to think about, Aaastoret. If I may ask you one last question, and forgive me if this is somewhat subjective question…”
“You may ask.”
“On the whole, am I correct in interpreting your comments as an overall recommendation for traveling with a human?”
“Very well. I thank you, Aaastoret.” Tiil’ik said. Then it turned to me. “I will join your crew, Captain Miller.”